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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Bambara Antelope Mask
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Bambara Antelope Mask - PF.1256 (LSO)
Origin: Mali
Circa: 19th th Century AD to 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 28" (71.1cm) high x 9.25" (23.5cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Wood and Paint

Location: United States
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This beautiful and elegant mask was made by the Bambara (or Bamana) people of Mali, and is an exceptional example of the genre. It comprises a large face-mask backing, domed in the centre and bearing a small antelope’s head, in highly polished wood that contrasts with the matte texture of the backing. The mask is dominated by a spectacular pair of barley-twist antelope horns that extend upward and slightly outward, their surfaces ripples with superb detailing, the top one fifth of their total height being plain as they would be in the live animal. The head is very angular and expressionist, with the planes and angles being very clearly defined. The patination is superb.

The Bambara/Bamana are one of the largest groups in Mali (about 2.5 million) and lives in a savannah grassland area that contrasts strongly with the Dogon heartland. Their linguistic heritage indicates that they are part of the Mande group, although their origins go back perhaps as far as 1500 BC in the present-day Sahara. They gave rise to the Bozo, who founded Djenne in an area subsequently overrun by the Soninke Mande (<1100 AD). Their last empire dissolved in the 1600s, and many Mande speakers spread out along the Nigeria River Basin. The Bamana empire arose from these remnant populations in around 1740. The height of its imperial strength was reached in the 1780s under the rule of Ngolo Diarra, who expanded their territory considerably.

Their society is Mande-like overall, with patrilineal descent and a nobility/vassal caste system that is further divided into numerous subvariants including the Jula (traders), Fula (cattle herding), Bozo (indentured slaves) and Maraka (rich merchants). Age, sex and occupation groups are classed to reflect their social importance. This complex structure is echoed in the systematics of indigenous art traditions. Sculptures include Guandousou, Guaitigi and Guanyenni figures – that are used to promote fertility and social balance – while heavily encrusted zoomorphic Boli figures serve an apotropaic function, and curvaceous dyonyeni sculptures are used in initiation ceremonies. Everyday items include iron staffs, wooden puppets and equestrian figures; their sexually-constructed anthropomorphic door locks are especially well- known. There are four main mask forms. The N’tomo society has the best-known form, with a tall, face topped by a vertical comb structure. The Komo society uses an elongated, demonic-looking mask with various animal parts arranged into a fearsome zoomorphic form that is worn atop the head. The Nama society uses a mask that is based around an articulated bird’s head, while the little-known Kore rituals involve a deconstructed animal head. Chiwara headcrests – which represent deconstructed antelopes – are distinct creations, and as such are usually considered separately.

This mask, however, poses something of a quandary. It is the closest match to the Komo mask, which is as long and may well have been worn in the same manner. However, the Komo variant is notable for its somewhat hideous appearance, which is heightened by the application of organic matter and an encrusted patina. The antelope connection relates it to the Chi Wara headrests, which were controlled and danced by the Chi-Wara-Ton society. Their pieces, which are highly abstracted, are named “chiwara” for “labouring wild animal” and refers to a half-man, half antelope that was born of Mousso Koroni (a sky goddess) and an earth spirit in the form of a cobra. Chiwara then taught the Bamana how to farm, and is worshipped accordingly. This is clearly not a Chi-Wara headcrest, but it may be related in some way to the society.

Whatever its function, this is an exceptionally beautiful piece of African art.

- (PF.1256 (LSO))


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